via economist.comAT AROUND the age of 70, Katsushika Hokusai, still bounding with artistic energy, created “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”, a series of ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. His most famous, since reproduced on everything from Tintin books to tea cups, is “Beneath the Wave off Kanagawa”, painted around 1830.
Most Westerners, when viewing it, focus on the wave itself, which towers over Mount Fuji in a show of almost implacable force, all the more terrifying considering the three fragile boats under it. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, wrote in “A History of the World in 100 Objects” that the picture reflected frightened fishermen and an insecure, cloistered Japan about to be forced by American gunboats into the modern world. But Japanese art critics differ—and they have a point. In the picture the boatmen look more serene than fearful, as their vessels slice through the waves. Their stillness in the face of danger is all the more poignant in Japan, as they have a job to do. They are racing to deliver fresh fish to market, and yet they remain, as far as many Japanese see it, in delicate balance with nature.
Since the March 11th tsunami, once again Japan is examining itself through the prism of a great wave. What it sees can at first strike an outsider as oddly romantic. Talk to mayors of port cities up and down the stricken north-eastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and they almost invariably describe the mighty ocean as a friend and source of hope—even though some lost loved ones, homes and businesses in the onslaught.
In Japan at large some people (though woefully few national politicians) feel that the destruction wrought by nature has revived a sense of purpose; some have even taken it as a cue to get married and procreate. During two decades of constipated economics and politics, the deadening sense grew that Japan had lost its appetite for risk, whether entrepreneurial derring-do or even, in the context of a population that had begun to shrink, the risk of picking the wrong mate. But with a disaster on a biblical scale in March, the Japanese bowed to no one. Some fishermen, faced with 40-foot (12-metre) waves, took to their boats and headed straight over them: echoes of Hokusai’s deliverymen. Granted, that was the best way to save their boats. But how refreshing if it were to reflect a reawakened sense of courage in the country as a whole.